Santa Ana Drags... The End of an Era
A perspective
by Don Prieto - 1999

 

Forty years ago, this past June 21, Santa Ana Drags closed its doors permanently. The first organized drag strip, founded by C.J. "Pappy" Hart, Creighton Hunter and Frank Stillwell ended its nine-year run and closed out a chapter of drag racing that many refer to as the formative years.

Closer and certainly cleaner than the dusty dry lake beds in the Mojave Desert, Santa Ana Drags provided early drag racing its gestation place at the old Orange County Airport auxiliary runway. And while the airport is still there, it has become one of the busiest of its kind in the country.

Like the dry lakes racing from which it was formed, hot rods at Santa Ana often raced five and six abreast but this proved to be very unsafe. Another unusual aspect of the drags on the runway was "rolling starts". Fragile gears in early ford transmissions, which most hot rods used, were prone to break when making an all out launch from a dead stop, so competitors would form up on the slight downhill portion of the staging area. The racers would look at each other to see if the other one was ready. Each would nod and release the brakes, rolling toward the flagman standing in the center of the strip. At the wave of the flag the race was on. The starter (usually C.J. Hart) had the right to declare a false start and rerun the race.

Since the strip measured only top speed at the end of the quartermile, there were no elapsed times. Only after other strips, like Saugus and Lions, adopted standing starts did Santa Ana Drags start measuring e.t.s.
Competitors at Santa Ana saw a very quick progression of vehicle modification. Starting out there were the hot street coupes and roadsters of the day along with the Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs, followed quickly by the thingies which were little more that a frame, motor and drivers seat. The "Bug" of Dick Kraft (pictured here in this article) was the first of many stripped down "jobs" that showed up to race. And its plain to see that little attention was paid to safety in those early years.

Several milestones were established in the drag racing history books at this drag strip. The most memorable run was made by Don Yates in the "Lakewood Muffler" Clark Cagle and Yates brothers Ardun powered "thingie" as it turned in a speed of 140 miles per hour. This run came right on the heels of an article by Roger Huntington that boldly stated that a drag racer would never achieve that speed. He (Roger) theorized that it was mathmatically impossible because it would require a traction coefficient in excess of "one". So much for slide rule theories applying to drag racing.

It wasn't but a few weeks later that Art Chrisman exceeded 144 mph and later the same year the "Bean Bandits" upped the record to 148. Ollie Morris officially set the record at 150 the following year. All accomplished with recapped slicks, flathead Fords and nitromethane. By the end of the Santa Ana chapter in drag racing, track operator C. J. Hart had agreed with Mickey Thompson and several other local Southern California drag strip operators to ban nitromethane in accord with the increasingly powerful National Hot Rod Association, the sanctioning body of record for most drag strips.

In the short span of nine years that was the limited days of Santa Ana, there was a tremendous change and settling down of the rules of racing. Two cars side by side from a standing start, instead of the hoi poloi of 5 or
6 facing off. The safety rules came into being, producing such life-saving devices as helmets, roll bars, seat belts, scattershields, safety hubs, fuel shutoffs as well as fencing off the spectator area so as to minumize risk from an errant drag racer. Elapsed times were measured and became standardized. Records were established and classes of racing designated along with Eliminator categories. Drag racing came a long way during the days when the Orange County Airport auxiliary runway was commandeered to "get the kids off the street".

The final chapter in the saga of Santa Ana was witness by its biggest crowd ever and the turnout of racers was the who's who of the times. Lefty Mudersbach and his twin Chevy, Jack Chrisman driving Joe Mailliards "Sidewinder", Dode Martin and Jim Nelson with their Dragmaster and Dragliner cars, and Jack Hart with his Blown Chevy "Giant Killer.

That last drag race had its moments and certainly didn't dissappoint the many spectators. Jim Nelson set fast time at 163.63 and crashed the Dragmaster when the brakes failed after eliminating Lefty Mudersbachs twin Chevy. Co-founder Creighton Hunter took his first ride in a racecar since crashing his pie-shaped sidewinder and Jack Chrisman won Top Eliminator beating the blown Cadillac powered rig of Glen Ward. The winning elapsed time was 9.20 and top speed was 157.89. Jacks winning car, the Chrysler powered "Sidewinder" of Joe Mailliard also set the final low e.t. record at 9.16 seconds.
As Santa Ana came to a close, the racing continued shifting locations to places like Lions in Long Beach that opened in 1955, San Gabriel, Bakersfield, Taft where C.J. Hart landed, Colton, Riverside, Pomona and San Fernando. The cradle of drag racing had lost its first real drag strip to progress and urban sprawl.

It was the first of many terrific Southern California drag strips to meet this fate.

It was certainly great while it lasted.

 

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